» Continued investment in the U.K.’s rail network comes at a considerable cost, but spending on existing services will complement planned high-speed rail route and further recent ridership increases.
Opposition to the United Kingdom’s second high-speed rail line, the £17
33 billion* connection between London and Birmingham called HS2, has been stewing for years. Critics of the line — much like opponents to rail programs in the U.S. — suggest that the project’s benefits do not justify its enormous cost (both monetarily and in terms of its effects on the rural landscapes trains will pass through) and that other investments on existing lines would be more effective.
While the U.K.’s Conservative-led coalition government, itself teetering and facing a double-dip recession, continues to maintain its support for the HS2 program, it has not limited its public investments just to that line, and this week it announced a £9.4 billion ($14.6 billion) scheme to electrify a number of routes throughout the country between 2014 and 2019. Certain of these projects were announced in 2009 under the then-Labour government. The improvements will provide for a significant expansion in capacity on existing lines, decrease operating costs, and allow the introduction of faster, more agile electric trains — in addition to clearing the way for more space for freight trains.
The spending, which will electrify routes from London to Cardiff, Manchester to Liverpool and York, and the Midland Main Line, is part of a £16 billion total investment in the National Rail route network planned for the five-year period, whose hallmark projects include the construction or improvement of two cross-London lines, Crossrail and Thameslink. It comes after fifteen years of £35 billion of concentrated investments in the U.K.’s rail system — spending in tracks, signals, stations and trains that has radically improved service and dramatically increased passenger counts.
Unlike HS2, the planned line electrifications are unlikely to see much opposition, in part because the investments made in the country’s rail network thus far have proven so popular despite their high cost. Though there is quite a bit criticism of the operations regime used in the U.K., in which private operators bid for routes (indeed, Labour is “flirting” with re-nationalisation), the publicly owned infrastructure has been improved to such an extent that the nation now boasts the second-most heavily used rail network in Europe, after Germany. Last year, 1.35 billion riders took to the rails, an increase of 50% over the past decade. Though Amtrak’s recent passenger growth has been impressive, its roughly 30 million annual passengers pale in comparison.** So there is cross-party support for projects that improve the U.K.’s railways.
This raises questions about the right approach for investment in rail systems in the United States. The only true high-speed rail project with any reasonable chance of even partial implementation in the U.S. currently is the California High-Speed Rail system, but that effort will require a significant infusion of future federal funds to move beyond an initial operating segment. On the other hand, there are major improvements being sponsored in states such as North Carolina and Illinois that will speed up existing passenger routes, improve freight operations, and expand the number of daily services. In many ways, those latter programs are much more like the British approach than the true high-speed investment proposed for California, and as the evidence has demonstrated, a serious effort to improve existing lines is likely to attract many more passengers.
Yet opponents have cried foul repeatedly in the U.S. Aaron Renn, whose view replicates that of many conservatives, wrote last week that Illinois’ investment in improving the corridor between Chicago and St. Louis represented little more than the implementation of “Toonerville Trolleys” because of the proposed trains’ relatively low 110 mph maximum speeds. He then bemoaned the high cost of the California plan and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor project, while at the same time arguing that “high speed rail could play an important role in US transportation.” He suggests that supporters of high-speed rail will support every project with that name attached to it, but he himself does not seem willing to endorse any project of the type once it reaches the planning phase. Perhaps American supporters of rail are too enthusiastic, but half of that excitement is simply a reaction to the overwhelming, mind-numbing skepticism of opponents.
The fact is that there are reasonable quibbles to be articulated against most infrastructure projects, and it is possible that significant improvements to the U.S.’ existing rail system could be made at a lower cost. In addition, as Alon Levy has noted, improved cooperation between agencies is necessary; it is no surprise that the U.K.’s single rail infrastructure owner is better able to handle upgrades than America’s balkanized pattern of public and private track control. But it seems evident that working through problems where they exist and devoting money to improvements where possible will lead to increasing use of the country’s trains — as has been the case in the U.K.
Nevertheless, difficulties remain in Britain as well. Transport Secretary Justine Greening noted that the private passenger rail companies in the U.K. were operating with “waste and inefficiency” but that there was nothing to do in the immediate term. Meanwhile, because of inadequacies in government funding, passengers would have to take the fall for much of the cost of new spending, resulting in planned increases in fares equal to annual inflation plus 3%. That increase is probably worth it to riders, who will be getting better service as a result, but it will still take a toll on peoples’ finances and potentially limit future ridership increases. At the same time, a similar approach is nearly impossible in the U.S. because of the tiny number of existing passengers.
The U.K. has been a train-riding country for more than a century and it never abandoned its passenger services, unlike the U.S. So it has been easier — both politically and cost-wise — for it to build up passenger counts in recent years through systematic investment. Can the U.S. repeat its successes, despite the lack of existing riders (and related political will), the high construction costs necessary to improve services, and the lack of national control over rail infrastructure?
* The £33 billion cost quote includes links north from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.
** Though this figure does not include commuter rail services, of which many are included in the British number. However, even with commuter rail added to Amtrak, total intercity rail ridership in the U.S. is about 500 million a year — in a country five times as large as the U.K.